Embrace of the Earthship

Published January 18, 2012 by housecrazy

Ever heard of an earthship? If not, this is what you are missing out on:

model earthship in the Greater World Earthship Community, Taos, NM - photo credit: Sarah Felix Burns

Brighton Earthship - image from: naturalbuild.wordpress.com

image from: 1001-home-efficiency-tips.com

I am crazy about earthships. They might just be my favorite architectural style of all time (the weirder the better right?) Not only are they unique, they are also one of the most environmentally friendly structures on the earth.

From the Earthship Bioetechture website:

“An Earthship is a radically sustainable building made of recycled materials.

An Earthship is a new kind of building, a new kind of architecture. It is so new, we call it Biotecture. But we have been doing this for 40 years. An Earthship is a building that will take care of you, while still being sustainable, affordable, strong and logical.”

Source: Earthship Biotecture

Earthships were invented in the 1970’s by a guy named Michael Reynolds. Basically, he had a beef with how wasteful conventional architecture was and he wanted to build something more environmentally friendly using all recycled and/or natural materials.

Earthship inventor Michael Reynolds - image from: onearth.org

He used old tires, aluminum cans, and glass bottles in his construction of the first earthship and they are still basically built the same way today. The process involves shoveling sand and packing it tight into old tires and stacking these for the exterior and load-bearing walls. Internal walls and decorative features are made from beer cans stuffed with sand or pieces of glass bottles. The walls are then finished with stucco or adobe mud for a southwestern flair. The basic ideas behind earthships are 1) passive solar (south-facing wall of windows) and 2) thermal mass (north wall burrowed into the earth). They also often include rain-water collection systems, grey water waste treatment systems, and solar panels among other green building solutions.

Micheal Reynolds is based in northern New Mexico (Taos area) and he still works with and lectures about earthships there. Just outside of Taos is a large earthship village known as The Greater World Earthship Community. And it’s not just a bunch of old hippies – a lot of young people are getting in on this too.

I had the opportunity to visit the Greater World Earthship Community a few years back and I toured the model earthship that is on display to the public.

Here are some photos I took:

photo credit: Sarah Felix Burns

Earthships are so sculptural; they are like individual works of art.

Here’s the inside:

photo credit: Sarah Felix Burns

This earthship has planter boxes along the south wall of windows – a common feature in earthships. Also note the poured concrete floors – very durable!

photo credit: Sarah Felix Burns

Here is a shot from the back side of the earthship:

photo credit: Sarah Felix Burns

You can clearly see how the whole back part is buried under a mound of earth. This is how the earthship gets its thermal mass qualities. Thermal mass refers to the mass of the earth providing a constant temperature inside the structure, keeping the dwelling the same temperature of the earth around it – cool in the summer and warm in the winter. (Disclaimer: that’s my layperson’s definition – I did not in any way major in science).

photo credit: Sarah Felix Burns

Touring this earthship in The Greater World Earthship Community was kind of a life-changing event for me. It really opened my eyes to sustainable architecture and green building techniques. Ever since my visit to Taos, I have been looking for an earthship to buy (since I’m not in a position to build one at this point in my life).

Lupe and I have viewed about a dozen earthships that have been for sale over the past 8 years. Each has had its own personality and varying levels of sustainability. All of them were beautiful. I kept a few flyers in my house files and also some pictures I took.

One that we seriously considered buying (and looked at on three separate occasions) was a five-bay earthship in Guffey, Colorado. (“Bay” refers to the living compartments, or rooms).

Here’s what it looked like from the exterior:

photo credit: Sarah Felix Burns

This angle gives you a better view of the five bays:

photo credit: Sarah Felix Burns

It was a bit of a mess inside. It needed some deep cleaning and maintenance, and it was hard to see past all of the junk that was stored there. But it had the potential to be very beautiful.

This is the actual listing flyer:

from: listing agent Laura Gillespie (Prudential - Woodland Park, CO)

I believe it might still be for sale if anyone is interested.

One of the best things about the Guffey earthship is the property, not to mention the views:

photo credit: Sarah Felix Burns

Gosh, I LOVE Colorado!

Another smaller earthship we viewed was near the town of Buena Vista, Colorado. It came up for sale again recently but I could not find the listing to link to. I did, however, keep the flyer from when we went to see it back in 2003:

listing flyer from: Sherri Pearson (The Valley Broker Real Estate Co.)

It was very small (952 square feet) but neat and tidy and VERY adorable. The interior exuded warmth and coziness. The lot was large – nearly 20 acres –  and sprawling with a view of the Collegiate Peaks.

We also went to see an earthship near Westcliffe, Colorado that was very interesting. It was actually a double-decker earthship – two stories. I wish I had better pictures but I do still have the realtor.com page:

from: realtor.com

Here’s a close-up of the exterior:

from: realtor.com

This one was very angular (rather than rounded and sculptural) but amazing inside. We drove up the driveway and the owners were there so they graciously invited us inside. The top level was not completed but what they had done on the lower level was amazing.

Speaking of amazing, there are a couple of larger-scale earthships currently for sale in Colorado.

Here is one now on the market in Coaldale, Colorado (not too far from where I live)

For more information see the listing at: greehomesforsale.com.

There is another massive, beautiful earthship for sale in Ridegway, Colorado:

See the complete listing at: greenhomesforsale.com.

Also in Ridgeway, the actor Dennis Weaver owned one of the largest, most elaborate earthships in the world:

photo from: Dennisweaver.com

He and his wife Gerry named it Sunridge. You can find more information about it at: http://www.dennisweaver.com/earthship/index.html

If you are ever interested in having an earthship built for you, there is a builder in Colorado that specializes in them:

from: flyer - Living Earth Construction

reverse side of flyer - Living Earth Construction

The interiors of earthships can be quite extraordinary. Even though the back part of the earthship is essentially buried underground, the south-facing wall of windows brings in ample light and allows for excellent passive solar heating. The deliberate angle of the windows ensures maximum winter sun exposure, but shields the interior from the intense overhead summer sun.

image from: hubpages.com (Eco-Friendly Homes Earthship Style)

The floors of an earthship are often made of some material which can absorb the heat of the sun, such as concrete, flagstone, bricks, terracotta, Mexican Saltillo tile or recycled tile. Many earthships have artistic one-of-a-kind designs created in the flooring:

There are often skylights to capture additional natural light for rooms near the back-end of an earthship. Vigas (large, peeled wood beams) are common as are wood accents and stucco finishes.

image from: wandalust.com (Earthship Enterprise)

Since earthships are sort of like a mini-greenhouse, people can grow all sorts of elaborate things in the interior planters (banana trees are not uncommon, even in cold climates). You can literally lean over from the kitchen and pick your breakfast:

image from: baltimorediy.org (earthship webinar)

I just adore earthships. My dream is to someday own one or build one. There’s just something so peaceful and satisfying about living in a house embraced by the good old mother earth.

photo of Studio Earthship BC from: middleearthhome.com

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